By Jonathan Alter, Newsweek senior editor
Something unprecedented happened tonight, beyond the doorkeeper announcing, “Madame Speaker.” For the first time ever, the response to the State of the Union overshadowed the president’s big speech. Virginia Sen. James Webb, in office only three weeks, managed to convey a muscular liberalism-with personal touches-that left President Bush’s ordinary address in the dust. In the past, the Democratic response has been anemic—remember Washington State Governor Gary Locke? This time it pointed the way to a revival for national Democrats.
Webb is seen as a moderate or even conservative Democrat, but this was a populist speech that quoted Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party and champion of the common man. The speech represented a return to the tough-minded liberalism of Scoop Jackson and Hubert Humphrey, but by quoting Republicans Teddy Roosevelt (on “improper corporate influence”) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (on ending the Korean War), he reinforced the argument that President Bush had taken the GOP away from its roots.
Webb was given a speech to read by the Democratic leadership. He threw it out and wrote his own. As a well-regarded novelist, Webb has a sense of narrative and human drama. He apparently felt that the boots his son wore in Iraq, which he used to great effect during his successful Senate campaign against Sen. George Allen, might be a bit hokey. So instead, he showed a picture of his father during the Berlin airlift. He then went on to describe taking the picture to bed every night and his family’s long record of military service.
As a highly decorated veteran of Vietnam and the Reagan Administration (where he served as navy secretary), Webb is the perfect instrument for rescuing Democrats from the image of wimpy, weak-kneed wussyism that has so hampered them in recent national elections. The contrast with Bush and Vice President Cheney-both of whom avoided going to Vietnam-could not have been starker. Webb did not have “other priorities” (Cheney) or a cushy billet defending Texas from Mexico (Bush). But unlike fellow veteran John Kerry, he has a military bearing and non-elitist tone that is appealing.
Could this help land Webb on the 2008 ticket? Maybe, though he was a stiff and unsmiling candidate in Virginia and he’s been married three times. The problem with the populist theme is that Democrats have no real remedies for the effects of globalization on the middle class. And they are not yet entirely clear on what should be done in Iraq. But at a minimum, Jim Webb offered a timely reminder that great political parties can recover if they strike the right tone.